After Sir Henry Raeburn, FRSE RA RSA, 1756-1823
The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch
Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch
oil on canvas
30.25” x 26” (77cm x 66cm)


early 18th century carved and gilded frame


The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, better known by its shorter title The Skating Minister, is an oil painting attributed to Henry Raeburn in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was practically unknown until about 1949, but has since become one of Scotland's best-known paintings. It is considered an icon of Scottish culture, painted during one of the most remarkable periods in the country's history, the Scottish Enlightenment.

The minister portrayed in this painting is Robert Walker. He was a Church of Scotland minister who was born on 30 April 1755 in Monkton, Ayrshire. When Walker was a child, his father had been minister of the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam, so the young Robert almost certainly learnt to skate on the frozen canals of the Netherlands. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Edinburgh in 1770 at the age of fifteen. He married Jean Fraser in 1778 and had five children. He became a member of the Royal Company of Archers in 1779 and their chaplain in 1798.

He was minister of the Canongate Kirk as well as being a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first figure skating clubformed anywhere in the world. The club met on Duddingston Loch as shown in the painting, or on Lochend loch to its northeast between Edinburgh and Leith, when these lochs were suitably frozen.

The painting is unusual in both its composition and its setting. The subject matter, perhaps intentionally conveying Walker's ties with Holland, is reminiscent of seventeenth-century Dutch artworks, particularly those of Hendrick Avercamp. The Reverend skates in the efficient but difficult "travelling position", with both arms folded across his chest and his stern black outfit contrasts with the wild backdrop of Duddingston Loch. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon, "The pinkish grey crags and sky have been painted with great freedom, whereas the figure of Reverend Robert Walker himself is so tightly drawn and painted that he appears almost as a black silhouette against an icy, vaporous wilderness. Perhaps this was the artist's way of suggesting that, for all his apparent probity and self-restraint, the minister was at heart something of a romantic – a man, at any rate, with a penchant for communing with nature."

Art historian Duncan Thomson notes that, "The filigree within the buckle on the strap at the skater's right knee and the taut complexities of the arrangement of the pink ribbons that binds the skates to his shoes are a reminder of the manipulative skills that Raeburn must have developed during his apprenticeship [as a jeweller and goldsmith] ... perhaps the tour de force of observation and the finding of equivalent forms are the marks that the skater (or those who have circled with him) has made on the ice: the curving grooves incised with some appropriate tool in a liquid, greyish white which has been spread over a darker grey that has been allowed to dry and the edges of these tiny furrows, more pronounced towards the bottom of the picture, tipped in with a purer white to simulate the froth of ice thrown aside by the cutting blade."

In March 2005, a curator from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery suggested that the painting was by French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux rather than by Henry Raeburn. Once this information had been brought to the attention of the Gallery, the label on the painting was altered to read “Recent research has suggested that the picture was actually painted [...] by Henri-Pierre Danloux.” Since this time, many people have debated this idea. It has been argued that Danloux was in Edinburgh during the 1790s, which happens to be the time period when The Skating Minister was created. Supposedly the canvas and scale of the painting appears to be that of a French painter, although Raeburn critics argue otherwise.

Despite continuing controversy about its attribution, The Skating Minister was sent to New York City in 2005 to be exhibited in Christie's for Tartan Day, an important Scottish celebration. James Holloway, director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, told The Scotsman newspaper that his "gut reaction" was that it is by Raeburn. The newspaper reported that "it is understood that Sir Timothy Clifford, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, now accepts the painting is a Raeburn."


Artist biography

Raeburn, Sir Henry (1756–1823), portrait painter, was born on 4 March 1756 in the village of Stockbridge, now a district of Edinburgh which lies about a mile north-west of Edinburgh Castle, at that time the westernmost limit of the city. He was baptized three days later in the parish church of St Cuthbert (the West Kirk), which lies beneath the castle rock. His parents were Robert Raeburn, a yarn boiler, who ran a successful business preparing raw yarn for the woollen trade, and Ann Elder. There were at least three other children of the marriage: William, who would work in the business; Charles, described in later life as a mariner; and Ann, who married a Robert Wemyss.

Childhood and apprenticeship

Robert Raeburn was a man of some significance in his trade, holding office in the Incorporation of Weavers of his district on a number of occasions; but his reputation must have been tarnished when he was accused of forging a signature on a financial document and imprisoned for a period at the beginning of 1760. Accusations of sexual impropriety with his washerwoman were raised at the same time but these were not proved.

In the year before Henry Raeburn's birth, Robert Raeburn had erected a 114 foot-long boiling house on the east bank of the Water of Leith where it flowed north through Stockbridge, on land feued from the governors of George Heriot's Hospital. This was part of a complex of buildings that the elder Raeburn was erecting during the 1750s, and it was in one of these low-lying buildings that the future painter was born. The harnessed power of this river was the necessary condition for Raeburn's trade and for the other milling operations carried out in its vicinity, and for those brought up along its banks its constant sound must have seemed a natural part of their being.

At some time during the early 1760s Robert Raeburn and his wife both died, leaving Henry in the care of his brother William, some twelve years his senior. William took over the running of the family business (and continued in this role until his own death in 1810), while his younger brother entered George Heriot's Hospital in the spring of 1765. The school had been founded by James VI and I's jeweller, George Heriot, for the education of the orphaned children of tradesmen. The building had been erected between 1628 and the end of the seventeenth century in a Scots Renaissance style on a plateau of land above the Grassmarket, which lay to the south of the castle ramparts. The nine-year-old boy, after a quite long, uphill trek from his home, must initially have felt overwhelmed by the sheer presence of this immense, four-square building, still one of the most impressive in Edinburgh.

While pursuing a normal academic education Henry Raeburn, at some point during these years, must have demonstrated particular manual skills which seemed to suit him to the jewellery trade. Through a process begun by his school in the autumn of 1771, Raeburn was indentured to a goldsmith, James Gilliland, on 27 June 1772. He was now sixteen. At this time the jewellers of Edinburgh operated from the ‘luckenbooths’ (literally, locked-up shops) in Parliament Square, clustered round the medieval church of St Giles in the High Street. It is quite likely that Raeburn took up residence with his master, whose address is recorded as Blairs Luckenbooths. Gilliland had been in business as a jeweller from as early as 1752 and his activities are recorded until April 1790, when he probably died. His wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of the London publisher and bookseller John Murray (formerly McMurray), and they operated as agents for each other in their respective cities. The appearance of the jeweller and his wife is known, for in due course Raeburn painted their portraits in miniature.

The path that led Raeburn to portrait painting is not entirely clear, but at some time during his apprenticeship to Gilliland he seems to have graduated to painting miniatures, a class of object that would come quite naturally within his ken in a jeweller's workshop. Among his known subjects were Gilliland and his wife (both John Murray Publishers Ltd, London) and another goldsmith, and seal engraver, David Deuchar (NG Scot.). It is Deuchar who is traditionally credited with encouraging Raeburn to follow this course. These miniatures are accomplished in a descriptive sense but are formally rather naïve. Given the immense skills that Raeburn developed within the next decade as he turned to life-size portraiture, it is likely that this naïvety disappeared quite quickly and that many miniatures of a more sophisticated sort were painted during the 1770s and 1780s and are at present unrecognized. This possibility is borne out by a little watercolour portrait in miniature format of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik (priv. coll.), painted perhaps in the late 1780s and showing the precise control of light and shade that marks his mature work.

‘Portrait Painter in Edinburgh’; Italian sojourn

Within two years of the official end of his apprenticeship, Raeburn married, probably in 1780, a widow of some substance, Ann Leslie (née Edgar) (1744–1832), who was twelve years his senior. She had married the rather shadowy James Leslie in 1772 and through him had acquired Deanhaugh House, virtually opposite the Raeburn property on the other side of the Water of Leith. Besides two young daughters, Ann and Jacobina, she brought to the marriage not inconsiderable wealth inherited from her late father-in-law George Leslie, who had owned property in Paris as well as Edinburgh. A story in Allan Cunningham's life of Raeburn about how the painter met his future wife, and was enraptured by her when she came to sit for her portrait, has usually been dismissed as a romantic myth, but it has been given credence by the recent identification of an anonymous portrait of a widow as both Ann Leslie and Raeburn's earliest known full-scale portrait (NG Scot.).

The earliest years of the marriage were spent at Deanhaugh House, which was set in attractive grounds with close-cropped sward running to the river's edge. Despite the industrial activities on the other side of the river, the setting was virtually rural and the deep valley within yards to the south was a place of luxuriant natural growth. In the next few decades as the classical New Town of Edinburgh spread in the fields above, the area acquired a degree of enlightened artificiality. On the south side of the river a temple to Hygeia, designed by the painter Alexander Nasmyth, was erected above a mineral spring, on land feued by Raeburn.

The Raeburns' marriage produced two sons: Peter, born on 18 May 1781, and Henry, born on 24 October 1783. Within months of the latter's birth Raeburn had turned his mind towards a prolonged visit to Rome, and the summer of 1784 saw him making financial arrangements for his wife's affairs during his absence and arranging letters of credit for himself. It is an indication of Raeburn's desire to succeed that he should undertake such a journey so soon after marriage and, especially, the birth of two children. In the course of these preparations Raeburn is designated ‘Mr Raeburn the Painter’ and refers unequivocally to himself as 'Portrait Painter in Edinburgh'. This must mean that he had already established himself in such a role and gained at least some public recognition. Surviving portraits that would bear this out are, however, rare. There is the presumed portrait of Ann Leslie, soon to be his wife, and a portrait of the young advocate and connoisseur John Clerk, who became a close friend. The latter portrait was destroyed before its significance was realized, but old photographs suggest a painter of great observational accomplishment, but one whose visual imagination was still to be released.

The friendship with Clerk, of whom Raeburn painted another portrait about 1815, one that is deeply eloquent (Scot. NPG), is likely to have had a significant effect on Raeburn's development. His collection of books, paintings, bronzes, and especially prints must have been a great stimulus. Among the prints was a complete set of Rembrandt etchings, whose humanity and tenebrism must have set him thinking. Sources of the practical skills that Raeburn was still developing in the years before he set off for Rome are likely to have been drawing classes of the kind that he is recorded as attending in 1781 where the older painter Alexander Runciman gave guidance. These comprised drawing from the antique and the draped figure—but not the nude, an inevitable restriction in a presbyterian country. This must account for the suspect anatomy in a number of Raeburn's mature portraits.

There is also a tradition that Raeburn was given some assistance by David Martin, who had once worked as an assistant to Raeburn's great Scottish predecessor, Allan RamsayRamsay's method was one of careful planning and making preliminary drawings, quite the opposite of Raeburn's empirical approach. For Raeburn drawing was to be something done with a brush directly on the canvas and extended in a variety of visual responses. While Raeburn may have looked at Martin, none of Ramsay's genius had rubbed off on him, and Raeburn probably found his portraits stiff and uninspired.

Raeburn is likely to have reached Rome in the autumn of 1784. Almost inevitably he made contact with a countryman, James Byres, antiquary, cicerone (guide), and general entrepreneur, who provided a focus for Britons on the grand tour. Byres is credited with a piece of advice to Raeburn which, whatever the evidence, rings entirely true: this was always to paint with the object in front of him, and not to rely on memory or imagination. It was advice that Raeburn showed every sign of having accepted. Byresalso found him a patron in the young second Earl Spencer, who commissioned a miniature of himself—not from life, but to be copied from a pastel drawing by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Compared with Raeburn's early miniatures it is startlingly sophisticated and shows him working in a main-line British portrait tradition (priv. coll.).

The miniature was completed late in January 1786. Probably rather earlier, Raeburn had painted a life-size portrait of Byres's sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick Moir, in a melancholic pose, reading a book (on loan to NG Scot.). Not yet entirely accomplished, it has a carefully worked surface that may derive from the elderly Pompeo Batoni, pre-eminently the portraitist of young Britons, whom Raeburn must have met through Byres. His only other known works from this sojourn in Rome are two little copies, one of them a David with the Head of Goliath after the seventeenth-century painter Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. The conventional view has been that Raeburn learned little in Italy, but even this tiny copy disposes of that notion, for the way in which the light floods down the principal figure to illuminate the salient features became one of his major stylistic traits.

Early success

Raeburn was probably back in Scotland by the summer of 1786. On both legs of his journey he must have spent some time in London. Tales of meeting Sir Joshua Reynoldsare not strictly documented but some sort of contact is highly likely. That he had gathered firsthand evidence of the English portrait tradition, probably from a number of sources, is borne out by the portraits he painted shortly after his return to Edinburgh: a three-quarter length of the judge Lord Arniston (priv. coll.), and a pair of head-and-shoulders portraits of Sir William and Lady Forbes of Craigievar (Craigievar Castle), the first a rather solemn exercise in Reynolds's cerebral mode, the latter two suffused with his social sensibility.

It was with portraits like these that Raeburn very rapidly established his supremacy, brooking few rivals for the remainder of his life. It almost seemed that the vigorous society that he now entered, perceived as an ‘Athens of the north’, required a mediator like Raeburn and that this need was somehow a precondition of his genius.

Although a number of Raeburn's portraits of the late 1780s continued to show the influence of Reynolds, about 1790 he was developing a highly individual, indeed unique, form of lighting, where the figure was placed in front of a strong light source which scintillated around its contours and then spread in a series of reflections of differing strength within the dark forms. The most striking of these works, and one of the most beautiful he ever painted, was the double portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, standing in front of the low hills of their estate (NG Ire.). This portrait, for which he was able to charge 60 guineas, was sent to London for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1792 but arrived too late for inclusion—an early misjudgment of the London art world. It was shown instead at Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery where its 'singular style' was noticed by an anonymous critic who found much in it to praise. He also suggested, however, that more attention should have been given to the foliage of the trees, one of the earliest accusations of lack of finish which were to follow Raeburnthroughout his career.

The singular form of contre-jour lighting that Raeburn had devised had precedents of a sort in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian painting but it had never been used in portraiture in quite this way and it seems that his patrons found it rather difficult to accept. Henry Mackenzie, for example—the ‘man of feeling’—called it Raeburn's'falsetto style' and hoped he would give it up. In effect, Raeburn did, although carefully angled side-lighting always remained part of his repertory. It was in the mid-1790s that his inventiveness, which might have had a freer rein in a different climate, led him to paint the unique little full length of his skating friend, the Revd Robert Walker, better known as The Skating Minister (NG Scot.). Its combination of poise, precision, and humour have made it by far Raeburn's most famous painting; indeed, by a quirk of taste, since its virtual rediscovery in 1949 it has gained a degree of popularity unique in British art.

Raeburn's studio in these years was on the south side of George Street, the central avenue of Edinburgh's burgeoning New Town. However, his success, and probably his aspirations, were such that he outgrew these premises and towards the turn of the century erected a grand terraced house in York Place (initially no. 16, now no. 34). The rooms included reception areas, a picture gallery, a workshop for a frame maker, and a studio which took up the whole of the first floor. This studio contained a greatly enlarged window to the north which gathered the light above the River Forth and the county of Fife. This pure light, which meant so much to him, he controlled by a series of complex shutters, probably of his own devising. Joseph Farington called to inspect this studio in 1801, but missed Raeburn himself. Viewing some of Raeburn's portraits, he speculated on their 'Camera Obscura effect' (FaringtonDiary, 5.1631). It is highly unlikely, however, that Raeburn used any optical devices, and Farington may simply have failed to appreciate his observational acuity. As it happens, Raeburn later became aware of the camera lucida, and in 1818 he and Francis Chantrey made drawings of each other using one; but this was probably little more than a game. It is Raeburn's only known drawing (Scot. NPG).

One of the earliest portraits likely to have been completed in the York Place studio is the brilliantly coloured full-length portrait of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, dressed in highland-cum-military costume of his own design (NG Scot.). Both it and the full length of the immensely rich, self-made coppersmith William Forbes of Callendar, painted in 1798 (Scot. NPG), show Raeburn making use of the dramatic lighting effects he was now able to create. The portrait of Sinclair was the earliest of a number of portraits of highland chiefs and lairds wearing the kind of exotic dress that raised eyebrows when paraded in London. They include Francis MacNab (‘the MacNab’) (priv. coll.) and Colonel Alastair Macdonell of Glengarry (NG Scot.), both probably painted about 1810 though stylistically quite different. The former has much of the broken, loose handling that is often seen as typifying Raeburn's painting, while the latter is carefully descriptive—of tartan, guns, dirks, and targe—which suggests that the sitter demanded this kind of record. The contrast illustrates Raeburn's sometimes disconcerting versatility, which raises difficult problems of dating as well as the unanswered question of studio participation. The theme here, which is of a new, self-assertive type of ‘Scottishness’ (reactionary in some respects), is perhaps completed by the Byronically romantic full length of the second marquess of Bute of 1820, the dark figure wrapped in a glowing tartan cloak (priv. coll.).

Bankruptcy and family tensions

Worldly success seemed assured for Raeburn in the early years of the nineteenth century, but by 1808 things had gone badly wrong. His troubles seem to have stemmed from that entrepreneurial spirit that had created men like Forbes of Callendar. From 1805, and possibly earlier, he had been partner in a mercantile company, Henry Raeburn & Co., trading from the port of Leith. The other partners were his son Henry(his elder son Peter had died in 1798) and James Philip Inglis, husband of his stepdaughter Ann Leslie. The company owned a number of ships which seem to have traded mainly with London. In addition to his designation ‘portrait painter’ Raeburnnow added ‘underwriter’, and in 1806 he was a director of the Caledonian Insurance Company. However, in January 1808 he was forced to seek a sequestration of his 'whole means and estate heritable and moveable' and his bankruptcy was announced in the Edinburgh Gazette. The 'unexpected misfortunes' that caused Raeburn's fall are not precisely known, but by July of the same year claims against him totalled more than £36,000. Set against these claims was his considerable heritable property in the districts of Stockbridge, Canonmills, and the Dean, as well as in Leith. There was also the spacious studio in York Place, ownership of which had to be relinquished and replaced by a leasing arrangement. In the course of the year arrangements were put in place for Raeburn to reimburse his creditors by a composition of 4s. in the pound, and the period of sequestration was ended in December. Against the securities involved, Raeburn pledged himself to 'task the remaining years of his life' until 'the trembling hand of age' overtook him (5 Dec 1808, NA Scot., CS/29/10). It was an affirmation that Walter Scott, that other great artist of the age (who in time was overwhelmed by similar misfortunes), recalled in the spring of 1819 when a second portrait of himself by Raeburn was proposed: 'he … works now chiefly for cash poor fellow as he can have but a few years to make money' (Letters, 5.349).

The complexities of Raeburn's financial affairs and the difficulties of disentangling them from those of the firm were such that attempts to unravel them continued long after his death. In the short term they created distinct strains within his family circle. This is confirmed in some recently discovered correspondence from the year 1813. These letters reveal a less idealized Raeburn than the one depicted by his early biographers. There was, of course, some evidence for the rosier picture of his personality. Writing to Sir Duncan Campbell in November 1812 to seek payment for his portrait (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), he launches his plea with a delicate and relaxed literary touch: 'Painters and poets and these sort of people, you know, are always poor, and … I am no exception to this general description' (NA Scot., GD/170/267). But writing in the following year to Daniel Vere, husband of his stepdaughter Jacobina, who had unwisely incurred financial liabilities on his behalf, Raeburn is revealed as someone easily hurt and inclined to hasty reactions. He believes that Jacobina (Bina) had looked at him 'oddly' when he last called, and concludes that she is 'as violent against' him (and Mrs Raeburn) as her sister Ann has been (Raeburnto Daniel Vere, 5 March 1813, NL Scot., acc. 11547). He will not call again until he is sure of a proper welcome. Three days later he makes the same point in a letter to Bina, regretting that he has lost her esteem. Vere (Dany) then replies that 'this unpleasant correspondence' has been quite unnecessary and that Bina had simply wished to warn her stepfather that his affairs were now a not 'inconsiderable topic of public conversation' (Vere to Raeburn, retained draft, March 1813, ibid.).

Raeburn's entrepreneurial spirit was not quashed by the bankruptcy. The same correspondence reveals him planning to encourage builders to erect terraced houses on his land with cash advances on the security of their houses. These plans led to the erection of houses in Raeburn Place, Dean Street, and, from 1817, Ann Street, one of the loveliest streets in classical Edinburgh. However, they led to more contention within the family. His stepdaughters now launched an attack on what they believed to be an extravagant mode of living in St Bernard's House, the rather grand dwelling next to Deanhaugh House into which the Raeburns had moved a few years earlier. New silver plate had been bought and old furniture had been replaced with unnecessarily fine pieces by William TrotterRaeburn protests that such purchases will not need to be repeated in his lifetime—and he reminds Bina that 'there never was a thriftier or a more frugal woman' than her mother, even if she does occasionally like a 'little show' (Raeburn to Daniel Vere, 8 March 1813, NL Scot., acc. 11547). The ‘little show’ could refer to the over-lavish wedding presents bought for Charlotte White, who had recently married their son Henry, which had also raised hackles.

London afar

Another way in which Raeburn thought he might revive his fortunes was to remove his practice to London. John Hoppner had died in January 1810 and Raeburn travelled to London in the spring to see if he might fill the gap that he had left. His visit was orchestrated by his fellow Scot David Wilkie, who had settled in London five years before. Wilkie introduced him to a number of artists, including William BeecheyThomas StothardJohn Flaxman, and Benjamin West, but nothing came of his plans and he was back in Edinburgh by the end of June. From a national point of view it now seems just as well, for his definition of his time and place, which became part of his reputation, was incomplete. Effulgent statements like the glowing Lord Newton of 1811 (Dalmeny House, Edinburgh) or bravura parades of Scottish sentiment like the highland portraits would not have been made.

The episode can be seen as one of a number that illustrate a lack of ease in Raeburn'srelationship with London. The earliest had been the late delivery of the Clerk of Penicuik portrait. Now came a misunderstanding with the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he had been made an associate member in 1812. Having been elected a full member, in place of Henry Tresham, in 1815, he sent in a self-portrait as his diploma picture, not knowing that portraits of members could not be accepted. Great effort had gone into the making of this Olympian image (NG Scot.), for its high seriousness was how he wished to be perceived in London. His disappointment must have been extreme. It was eventually replaced by the sentimental Boy with a Rabbit, a portrait of his stepgrandson Henry Raeburn Inglis. The latest expression of this theme is found in a letter to Wilkie of 1819 in which he pleads for news of the 'famous London artists', including information on their prices. In a memorable cri de coeur, he writes: 'I … know almost as little about them as if I were living at the Cape of Good Hope' (Greig, xlvi). The most troubling part of this feeling of being cut off from the mainstream was his inability to see the works he had sent to the Royal Academy hanging alongside those of his peers.

There is little doubt that after 1808 Raeburn's work suffered from over-production, due partly to success but also to the promise he had made to himself about his duty to his creditors. There are many late portraits which are pedestrian or unresolved due to haste; and, surprisingly for a major painter, he was happy to make copies of other artists' works—ranging from quite minor painters, not always of his own time, to Ramsay and Reynolds. Nevertheless, some of his finest, most responsive portraits were produced during these years, among them, besides those already mentioned, the portrait of the seated huntsman William Hunt of Pittencrieff (priv. coll.), the equestrian full length of Major William Clunes (NG Scot.), and the superb military full length of Major James Lee Harvey, which is probably as late as 1820 (Louvre, Paris).

A marked characteristic of Raeburn's work had always been that some sitters, for not easily explained reasons, set his imagination alight, while others did not. This bore no relation to their worldly status and some of his most sympathetic portraits are of women neither beautiful nor young. Among earlier examples is the Rembrandtesque Margaret Gerard, Mrs James Cruikshank, painted about 1805 as a companion to the almost equally fine portrait of her West Indies merchant husband, James Cruikshank(both Frick Collection, New York). An example from the later period is the portrait of the elderly Mrs James Campbell (priv. coll.) which combines breathtaking freshness of colour and almost outrageously free handling with profound insight. There are also records that he was a man at ease with children, and in a number of group portraits he both contains and releases their wild energy; these range from the war-enacting Allen Brothers (priv. coll.) of the early 1790s to the playful trio in the painting known as The Elphinston Children (Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio), which was painted about 1813.

In these later years a number of Raeburn's portraits were permeated by the influence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, not always to their advantage. There was some level of intermittent friendship between them, and the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ letter makes it clear that it was Lawrence who most interested him. He was attracted less by his methods than by his sentiment. Raeburn's own perceptual method continued but it often carried a new emotional charge, particularly in his female portraits, which he must have believed was in accordance with London taste. A kind of sweet ecstasy pervades portraits like Mrs Scott Moncrieff (NG Scot.), once regarded as the archetypal Raeburn, without entirely swamping them, as happens in the lost portrait of Lady Gordon Cumming, shown at the Royal Academy in 1817. Raeburn himself believed this almost ridiculously mannered portrait to be 'by much the best and handsomest female picture I have yet painted'—which it assuredly was not (Greig archive, Scot. NPG).

Honours and final days

Honours came fast in Raeburn's final years: membership of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1819, a fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1820, a knighthood in 1822, and the revived office of king's painter and limner in Scotland in 1823. The knighthood was bestowed personally by George IV in a ceremony at Hopetoun House, Edinburgh, the final act of the monarch on his famous visit to Scotland. It is a curiosity of simpler times that during the arrangements for the conferral of the knighthood the painter found himself in conversation with the secretary of state, Robert Peel, without realizing who he was. When he discovered the truth, he wrote of his dismay (with a request that he convey an apology) to a friend, the member of parliament John Maxwellof Pollok, whose portrait he was working on at the time—a portrait that, although left unfinished at his death, shows his essential powers undimmed (priv. coll.).

Another event connected with the knighthood offers one of the last glimpses of Raeburn the man. On the day following the ceremony, the painter and his wife gave a dinner party for a number of friends at St Bernard's House, within a virtual stone's throw of his much humbler place of birth. Among the guests were Sir Adam Ferguson, who had been knighted at the same time, and the artists William Collins and David Wilkie. In a letter to his sister, Wilkie described the boisterous evening of toasts and song. Raeburn 'made a very modest reply' to one of the toasts, and Lady Raeburn—despite her erstwhile liking of a ‘little show’—'would not allow herself to be called My Lady on any account' (Andrew, 76–7).

Raeburn's death came quite suddenly. Late in June 1823 he took part in an excursion of an antiquarian sort into Fife with a number of friends who included FergusonSir Samuel ShepherdLord Chief Commissioner William AdamWalter Scott, and the diminutive Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, who was visiting Scott at Abbotsford. They examined sites at Ravenscraig Castle, Pittenweem, and St Andrews. It was 'a very merry party' in the words of Scott, of whom Raeburn had recently completed his second portrait, greatly to Scott's satisfaction this time (Scot. NPG). The day after returning to Edinburgh, Raeburn attempted to resume his work—the ‘task’ he had set himself many years before—but felt too unwell to continue. He retired to bed and shortly afterwards, on 8 July, died of 'a total failure of the system'. Perhaps not surprisingly, he left no will. He was buried on 10 July 1823, not as might have been expected in the graveyard of St Cuthbert's, but in the dormitory of the adjacent episcopalian church of St John the Evangelist, which had only recently been erected at the west end of Princes Street.


Scott, because of urgent business at Abbotsford, was unable to attend 'the last obsequies of a friend whom he esteemd and respected so entirely', as he wrote in his apology to Raeburn's family (Letters, 8.35). He did, however, pay his respects in a practical way, by revising Hugh Murray's obituary, which appeared in The Annual Biography for 1823. This rather idealized view of the man and his art, given its association with Scott, was a strong signal to posterity. It was followed by a memorial exhibition in 1824. The next important exhibition, a very large one, did not come until 1876, but its impact was considerable and it evoked a review by Robert Louis Stevenson. It also had the effect of releasing many major paintings onto the market. From this time, and into the years preceding the First World War, Raeburn's popular reputation rose rapidly and at a critical level he seemed to be granted at least equal status with his great English contemporaries. He was then caught up in the great American love affair with British art, and many of his works were acquired by museums and private collectors in the United States, often for very high prices.

The picture during the remainder of the twentieth century has been less straightforward, caused in part by the economic and political upheavals of the inter-war years, but also because the kind of glamour and sentiment that Raeburn's work seemed to represent went out of fashion. As portraiture itself fell into disrepute his reputation inevitably suffered, because his range had been virtually confined to that form. He also began to become part of a distinctly Scottish agenda that had little to do with aesthetic values. There is no doubt that Raeburn's critical reputation has been affected by a Scottish tendency to imbue certain cultural figures with something like iconic status. This has meant that criticism which was already inherently Anglo-centric (and that problem remains) has tended to side-step him because of his perceived ‘foreignness’. Even in the more objective exhibition held at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1956 there remained a certain collusion with notions of a picturesque Scottishness and a purely local sentiment. Nevertheless, towards the end of the century a view, represented by Denys Sutton writing in the journal Apollo, gained wide support that Raeburn's qualities as a painter were of such importance that they deserved to be re-examined in depth. This shift of opinion culminated in an exhibition confined to his finest works which was shown in both Edinburgh and London in 1997–8. By this time Raeburn's work had also been discovered, or, rather, rediscovered, in Europe—for example, a major painting, Major James Lee Harvey, had been acquired by the Louvre in 1995. In 2001 the National Gallery acquired its first painting by Raeburn, the double portrait known as The Archers—the kind of recognition in London which the painter had always craved.   

  • Duncan Thomson    DNB